County counsel: $374,000 taken from Julian FPD account

Julian’s last-in-the-county volunteer fire department was supposedly killed by a LAFCO vote last week.

But it’s apparently still alive — a zombie agency fighting in court to stave off “dissolution.”

The Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District also is clinging to its cash — stashing it beyond the reach of Cal Fire and San Diego County officials.

At a 13-minute hearing Tuesday before San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp, an attorney for the county made the startling announcement that “somebody on behalf of the district transferred approximately $374,000 out of the district’s bank accounts.”

Senior Deputy County Counsel Joshua Heinlein added: “We’re not sure where that money went.”

Standing immediately to Heinlein’s right, facing the judge, opposing attorney Cory Briggs quickly defused the mystery.

“I can answer that,” said Briggs, representing the newly elected Julian fire board, which opposes dissolution. “The money’s sitting in a trust account right now.”

It was news to attorney Craig Sherman — standing to the right of Briggs in the quiet fifth-floor downtown courtroom. (Also present was Carmen Brock, a LAFCO attorney.)

Sherman has been shepherding a lawsuit that alleges a previous Julian fire board violated the state’s Brown Act on open meetings, thus making “null and void” actions that followed, including a public vote that favored ending the 35-year-old agency in favor of county firefighting services via Cal Fire.

Judge Randa Trapp listens to lawyers representing LAFCO, San Diego County, the Julian fire board and its volunteer firefighters. Photo by Ken Stone

On April 5, Judge Trapp ruled in favor of Sherman’s clients, the Julian Volunteer Fire Company Association.

But on April 8, the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission voted to end the district as directed by a 54 percent “yes” vote on Measure A — letting the county take over fire services.

That same day, the Julian district’s bank accounts were drained.

“Assuming the dissolution was proper and went forward, that $374,000 rightfully belongs to the county,” Heinlein told the judge as Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham observed from the spectator seats.

Trapp ordered the money stay in the trust account pending her further orders.

Said Briggs: “That’s what we plan to do.”

Other plans — including when a possible temporary restraining order could block the county from permanently assuming all fire and emergency services in the mountain tourist mecca — are up in the air.

Trapp canceled a Wednesday hearing set for Judge John Meyer’s courtroom. Briggs was prepared to argue for a restraining order or injunction against the county.

Instead, Trapp set an 11 a.m. April 26 hearing to decide whether to grant requests by San Diego County and LAFCO to “intervene,” become involved with the Brown Act violation case.

Outside the courtroom, attorney Sherman called county efforts in Julian “a hostile takeover at its finest.”

He said the county been doing “everything to squeeze the district for a year or year and a half to pressure the board into trying to get [members] on the fence to [favor] dissolution.”

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Sherman said the county tried to weaken the fire district financially and service-wise.

“The Brown Act violation was when they predetermined and prenegotiated and determined what the terms for dissolution would be,” he said. “Once they had consensus among their secret meetings, and they had their votes down, they moved quickly to get it on calendar.”

Saying the dissolution vote by LAFCO “has no credibility,” Sherman says JCFPD continues to exist. “The county took action on something they couldn’t have — and knew they shouldn’t have.”

He predicted the county and LAFCO won’t be able to refute “the writings and the meetings and the discussions and the pollings — the evidence we presented to Judge Trapp.”

But he said his opponents would cast aspersions and claim fraud.

“They’re going to have people come in and say: We didn’t all meet together,” Sherman said. “But if you connect the dots on the other evidence we presented to Judge Trapp, it’s very clear. And that’s not going to get unwound and undone.”

Sherman won’t say how Trapp will steer the now-connected cases.

“I’ve been doing this too long to make predictions on any particular outcome,” he said.

County attorney Heinlein, when asked when the case would be resolved, echoed the uncertainty.

“I don’t know,” he said.